It seems as if overnight, voice search and voice assistants are mentioned everywhere. At SXSW this year, voice was one of the stars. At Google’s annual I/O developer conference, Google Assistant was given center stage. Amazon is constantly rolling out functionality updated and new skills for Alexa–at last count, over 45,000. And just last week, I spoke on a panel at the first Voice Summit sponsored by Amazon Alexa, and I can safely say: Voice is not a fad. 

The way people search for health information is being upended. CMI’s Media Vitals research, for instance, shows that a significant number of prescribers are interested in using voice technology for work, and already use it to research pharma product info. But pharma advertisers should use voice to truly engage and connect with patients, physicians, and other stakeholders, not just add voice to their media RFPs.  
How can marketers prepare? First, understand how voice fits into the evolution of interface. In the beginning, we had desktop Internet, then along came mobile, now we are in the next seismic shift to hands-free, voice-controlled interactions with brands and services. 

As David Isbitski, Amazon’s chief Alexa evangelist, put it at the summit, “The age of touch could soon come to an end. From smartphones and smartwatches to home devices to in-car infotainment systems, touch is no longer the primary user interface.” 
Unlike computers and smartphones, which require some sort of learning curve to use, voice completely removes these technological boundaries, opening it up to a much wider audience much more quickly.  
Whether you plan on creating a custom skill, which is basically an app with a voice interface available across Amazon Echo or Google Home, or focus on optimizing your web properties to appear as a voice search result, now is the time to get involved in voice, as the space is wide open. 
Also, make sure to understand existing use cases showing how voice is significant to our industry. Major players in the heath space are putting a lot of resources behind voice initiatives. The Mayo Clinic currently has over 100 voice initiatives underway covering everything from tele-medicine to smart exam rooms. At Boston Children’s Hospital, there is a staff of 50 dedicated to innovation. 
Some of the skills at Boston Children’s Hospital are designed to aid in processes and checklist-type tasks, such as organ transplant verification, which can be done through a voice skill. Another example is a skill to help with a safe surgery checklist, which eliminates the need for pen and paper (important for surgeons who are already scrubbed in). 
Other examples are skills to help physicians with basic info like policies, who’s on call, prescribing info, and other information needs they might have while filling out paperwork. 
More broadly, comScore predicts that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice searches. That sounds extremely aggressive until you realize Google Assistant is already on 500 million mobile devices and Amazon Echo products were the top-sellers this past holiday season and the biggest seller this past Amazon Prime day–world-wide. 
For pharma brands specifically, leveraging search engine optimization (SEO) is no longer a “nice to have”—it is absolutely mandatory. Your website needs to load as quickly as possible and implement schema tags within the html to provide as much content to search engines as possible.  
More importantly, if you don’t have the right content on your site, all of these SEOs would be pointless. You need to perform research to see the questions people are asking about your brand, industry, service, condition, etc. 
Often marketers have blinders on regarding how people actually search. When people search, they are not speaking in marketing language—they have more general questions related to your product or industry. Unlike desktop and mobile searches, which consist of short keyword phrases, when people perform voice searches they often ask full, grammatically correct questions (not keywords).  
If you decide to take the plunge into developing a custom skill, you really need to stop and think about how your brand is presented in an audible format. With Alexa and Google Home, there are no visual branding cues; all they have is the voice. You need to decide if your brand is male, female, has a specific accent, is serious or more humorous, etc. All of this has to start playing into creative messaging.
As more and more consumers leverage voice as their primary means of acquiring information, pharma brands clearly have a lot to ponder in terms of how their own information is optimized for the way healthcare stakeholders pose questions.
Mark Pappas is VP, search engine marketing, CMI/Compas.